Friday, September 25, 2009

Aneurin Gareth Thomas' "Luggage from Elsewhere": Book Review

This coming-of-age story spans 1966-82, narrated by a Welsh lad embittered by poverty, colonialism, nuclear threats, sex, drugs, overdoses, murder, and rain. While familiar ingredients in a standard recipe, Thomas does add sobering, poetic observations that enrich the tale. For readers interested in Wales in the "nuclear age", the hippie and punk movements, Thatcherism, and activism, this may prove a worthwhile selection.

In a society where females have only two choices: girl or mother, the narrator's maudlin Mam takes until menopause to become a woman. Her husband, a militantly and comically atheistic womanizer, with his mates down the pub "talked about the future as if there wasn't going to be one." (41) Welsh men later will earn pithy definition: machines converting beer into sperm.

The chapters of the tale told by the nameless narrator unfold out of order. Throughout, it's nearly always dreary. "Greyness wasn't only a colour in those days but a transparent substance that wafted day and night around our streets, a Passover curse that came calling through the keyhole, wandered about the house looking for grey matter, and on entering the brain, turned thoughts and feelings grey." (231)

Nature offers scant escape. One must conjure up one's dreams out of the daily grind. "Below an oil tanker stationed in the distance looked like a castle on a flat blue horizon. Seaweed washed up and dried under the sun as snakeskins. Foam met the grey-green of the sea. I walked along the shore among the sea's bones, passing boys my age playing at being younger with a plastic beach ball carried over the heads of a young family. A woman alone hoping for a lifeguard to stroke oil over her back, whisk her glasses and scarf away and take her back to when she was twenty. Men playing cards and holding in their stomachs, thinking if only the scarf would ask." (138)

The narrator thunders against complacency, the resignation of his people. As a teenager, he's threatened by English gentry for poaching trout in the river of a nation where he thought he could walk freely. As a young adult, he wanders to a hippie camp, but there he finds lassitude as the campers wait for mushrooms to grow under the torrential clouds. Idealism inspires him, desperately. "Our first act was to write on a wall next to the bank on High Street Gorseinon the slogan 'Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth'. Wales Is Not For Sale." (189) However, they "only got as far as writing NID YW CYMRU before being interrupted and we ran off." The partial slogan stands a few months as testimony to their bravery: it's rendered in English as "WALES IS NOT."

Wales under Thatcher drives the narrator and three friends to lash out. As Bore Coch ("Red Morning"), they issue a manifesto written in English, laboriously translated into Welsh, and back to English. "The last thing we wanted was to sound like an amateurish group that represented nobody and faked the Welsh, which was precisely what we were." (202-3) Nobody prints it.

Later, he will try another slogan which will wind him up in jail. He reflects there on his town, and the Welsh promise of his youth: "Where the children played, the next generation numbed the brain with pinpricks before the comedown of bus shelters covered in porn." (286) While the narrative for my tastes closed far too suddenly, perhaps the new novel by Thomas, titled "Excess Baggage," will continue the story.
(Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain 9-25-09)

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